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FAO Fisheries Circular No. 920 FIRM/C920

Rome, 1997

ISSN 0429-9329

Marine Resources Service,
Fishery Resources Division,
Fisheries Department,
FAO, Rome, Italy


FAO Statistical Areas 71 and 77


Stretching across the eastern half of FAO Statistical Area 71 and the southern parts of FAO Statistical Area 77, there is a distinctive fisheries region encompassing Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. The following review concentrates on this region, but certain parts may also be relevant to fisheries off adjacent Asian countries, northern and eastern Australia and Hawaii, USA.

The total area of land (0.5 million km2) in the region is small compared with the entire area (approximately 30 million km2). The EEZs cover 25.2 million km2, from which 19.8 km2 is accounted for by small island countries excluding Australia and New Zealand.

The small island countries support 5.25 million residents (67% in Papua New Guinea), who rely heavily on living marine resources as a source of food and foreign currencies from licence fees as well as exports. The average consumption of fish is about 50 kg per person per year, but reaches 250 kg in some atolls. This can be compared with 8 kg per person each year in a continental country such as Australia.


The long time series FAO catch statistics used in the compilation of the (Profile of Catches) for other regions are aggregated by FAO Statistical Areas and therefore cannot be used where the region to be reviewed incorporates parts of one or more Areas, as is the case with the South Pacific Islands. The catches and resources status of the South Pacific island fisheries are discussed below by major fishery type, followed by a discussion of management. In the South Pacific island region there are three main types of fisheries distinguished by their pattern of operation and the way they are administered by Pacific island nations: the industrial fisheries (mainly tunas); coastal fisheries for export (e.g. mother-of-pearl shells), and coastal fisheries for domestic consumption.

Industrial fisheries

Figure B16.1
Figure B16.2
Figure B16.3
Figure B16.4
Tunas are the target of the only significant industrial fisheries (purse seine, longline, pole and line, troll and, in the past, driftnet) off small islands in the South Pacific (see Fig. B16.1). They operate especially off Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, but also off Vanuatu and Fiji (see Fig. B16.2) for the purse seine fisheries, which produce most catches. The fishing is carried out mainly by distant water fishing nations like China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan (PC) and USA (see Fig. B16.3), which pay fees to gain access to South Pacific islands' Exclusive Economic Zones. In the 1970s and 1980s, few Pacific island nations were fishing for cannery-quality skipjack and albacore. Recently, their participation in tuna fishing has increased with the advent of small-scale longline fisheries for sashimi-quality yellowfin and bigeye tuna. These fisheries operate mainly off Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau and Tonga. However, Pacific island national fleets still take only 6.5% of the weight of tuna caught in the SPC statistical area. The species composition of tuna catches is given in Figure B16.4.

The tuna fisheries in the Pacific could probably sustain an increase over the current total catch (just over 1 million tonnes in 1994 for the SPC statistical area) by at least one third, provided fishing effort is well managed. However, at present, it may not be optimally distributed, particularly for small longliners targeting sashimi-quality fish, where effort is concentrated in Micronesia, close to the main markets and flag States. Interactions between industrial and small-scale tuna fisheries are a major focus of management-oriented research at the moment.

There is also another small industrial fishery (trawl) catching around 2 000 tonnes of shrimps per year off Papua New Guinea.

Coastal small-scale fisheries for export products

Figure B16.5 Figure B16.6
figure figure South Pacific island nations do not export a great deal of fishery products from their coastal zones, and those exported are predominantly in the category of commodities aimed at very specific markets. Most small-scale export-orientated coastal fishing is carried out by Pacific islanders who sell their catches to middlemen or exporters of often foreign origin and capitalisation. Exploitation is often driven by the occasional availability of commercial exporters in the area, resulting in a characteristic pulse fishing. Chief amongst the exported products, in terms of volume (see Fig. B16.5), are dried sea-cucumbers (still known as "beche-de-mer" in Melanesia and "trepang" in Micronesia), of which the vast majority are consumed by Chinese-speaking people. Mother-of-pearl shells (Trochus niloticus, Pinctada margaritifera, Turbo marmoratus, in decreasing order of volume) are also exported for natural shirt buttons and, to a lesser extent, traditional furniture inlays (see Fig. B16.6).

Recently, with improving transport, the export of certain species of chilled and live fish is becoming important, at least in terms of value and impact on stocks, although the deep-slope eteline snapper fishery has given way, in most cases, to small-scale tuna longlining.

Another valuable export product, resulting from the cultivation of primarily wild stocks, is black pearl. However, they are important only to the economies of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. Pearl farming is still the only commercially significant application of aquaculture in the South Pacific islands and the success of shrimp farming in a number of Melanesian countries continues to vary.

In general, across the Pacific islands region, little is known about the volumes being extracted (see Table B16.1). Export categorisation is often confused, coastal fishery stock assessment is virtually non-existent, and most of the information used in policy-making is anecdotal in origin.

Table B16.1. -Current annual exports of major coastal fisheries commodities from the Pacific islands region (data from SPC)

Commodity Amount
Sea cucumber 1 500 tonnes (dried, equivalent to 15 000 t live weight)
Trochus shell 2 000 tonnes of shell
Pearl shell 400 tonnes (mainly spent farmed shell)
Pearl US $ 100 million value
Eteline snapper (mainly Tonga) 300 tonnes
Giant clam (mainly Fiji) 20 tonnes of adductor muscle
Live serranids unknown

Some organisms (such as trochus, smaller aquarium fish and shallow-water holothurian species) are resilient enough to adapt to such pulse-fishing. However, other species (such as grouper, giant clam, green snail and pearl oyster) are often fished far beyond their capability for short-term recovery.

Most South Pacific island governments are coming to appreciate that reef fishery resources are not an inexhaustible attractant for foreign investment, and that traditional resource custodianship alone cannot cope with the conflicting values of the cash economy. Stock assessments and controls are gradually being instituted, albeit far too late in some cases. The most appropriate way of managing these export-orientated fisheries that is evolving appears to be island-wide or nation-wide moratoria interspersed by short open seasons.

Coastal small-scale fisheries for domestic consumption

Fisheries for export and for domestic consumption in the Pacific islands region do not interact as much as they perhaps do in other regions. Much of the small range of high-value products that are taken for export, such as deepwater snapper and sea-cucumbers, are not traditional local food-sources. Some of the export species that are locally used, like giant clam, have generally been scarce enough to be considered a traditional luxury, and the Pacific islands have not yet started to export their staple marine food-sources, although this could now be changing with the advent of very high-value live market possibilities for certain reef fishes.

Most Pacific islands still depend utterly on coastal marine sources for protein for human consumption. This dependency has come about both because of the bio-geographical lack of land mammals and the limited prospects for agriculture on the smaller islands. Some remote atolls have a per-capita fishery product consumption of over 250 kg annually, whilst even comparatively developed and agriculturally-oriented countries consume over 50 kg. It is estimated that about 80% of the coastal fishery production of around 100 000 tonnes annually (excluding the export commodity production described above) do not enter the cash economy.

Apart from mainland Papua New Guinea, which in many ways may be more properly considered as part of Southeast Asia, virtually all Pacific islanders live within the coastal zone. In rural areas, virtually every person fishes. Women (who do most of the shoreline fishing and reef-gleaning) are often more important than men in putting food regularly on the family table. A great variety of marine organisms are consumed. For example, over 100 species of finfish and 50 species of invertebrates are included in the fish market statistics in Fiji, and the number of species consumed in the subsistence fishery is nearly twice this. Although (or perhaps because) there is a great dependency on coastal fisheries, the marine food base of most Pacific islands appears to be currently secure. There are fears of overfishing around several national capitals. Most Pacific islands are inevitably subject to urban drift, and there have been definite changes in species and size composition of catches in areas with large human populations, but the coastal waters of most islands are not subject to heavy fishing pressure. However, as human populations increase, the degradation of reefs and a consequent reduction in carrying capacity, rather than increased fishing pressure, can be expected to have adverse effect on fisheries. Nearly all Pacific islands have the sustainable resource capacity to feed their populations, even at the present high rates of consumption. Those territories that are importers of reef food-fish, like Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands, are so largely because of the high-quality food demands of an unusually large tourism industry. The domestic coastal fisheries production in Table B16.2 is estimated from data from a wide range of sources with a wide range of reliability. Many values are based on an average of several estimates for recent years, and some subsistence estimates are based on only one survey. It would be impossible to construct a meaningful time series of data for most of them.

Table B16.2. -Domestic coastal fisheries production (data from SPC)

Country or Territory Production
Commercial Subsistence Total
American Samoa 52 215 267
Cook Islands 124 858 982
Federated States of Micronesia 637 6 243 6 880
Fiji 6 653 16 600 23 253
French Polynesia 2 352 3 691 6 043
Guam 118 472 591
Hawaii 10 206 2 000 12 206
Kiribati 3 240 9 084 12 324
Marshall Islands 369 2 000 2 369
Nauru 279 98 376
New Caledonia 981 2 500 3 481
Niue 12 103 115
Northern Marianas 141 2 825 2 966
Palau 736 750 1 486
Papua New Guinea 4 966 20 588 25 554
Pitcairn 0 8 8
Solomon Islands 1 150 10 000 11 150
Tokelau 0 191 191
Tonga 1 429 933 2 362
Tuvalu 120 807 927
Vanuatu 467 2 045 2 512
Wallis & Futuna 296 621 917
Western Samoa 208 3 281 3 489
Total 34 534 85 914 120 448


The countries and territories of the Pacific islands region naturally have a wide range of policies on fisheries conservation and management, but some common tendencies are apparent. For example, after the United Nations Conferences on the Law of the Sea, the independent island countries pooled their effective capacity for managing tuna fisheries probably to a greater extent than any other region. The South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), utilising the scientific advice of the South Pacific Commission (SPC), has a major role in harmonising national decisions and in assisting its member countries in negotiations on the access of foreign vessels to its EEZ's. FFA is also involved in the administration of multilateral access treaties, the operation of registers for distant-water fishing vessels, and the evolution of management arrangements. The Pacific island nations, which generally lack any capacity for distant water fishing, have consistently taken a more conservationist than exploitative approach to the management of highly migratory species.

National policies regarding the management and conservation of coastal fisheries vary among countries and territories of the South Pacific region since, unlike the tuna fishery, an effective or formal regional level of expression is lacking. Notwithstanding, there is a great deal of commonality in Pacific islands coastal fisheries, particularly for high-value invertebrate fisheries for export. The South Pacific Regional Environment Programme is assisting countries in conservation, especially in the protection of species that have been adversely affected by human activity beyond the scope of mere fisheries management, whilst the SPC Coastal Fisheries Programme is presently attempting to develop a mechanism for greater harmonisation of national policy regarding the management of reef and lagoon fisheries.

As with the tuna fisheries, the concept of local resource ownership is a common principle across most Pacific islands. Although there have been government attempts to suppress this tradition in the past in some countries, most now accept that recognition of, and support for, community management responsibility is one of the strategies most likely to be successful in managing coastal fisheries. Traditional concepts of resource use do not necessarily coincide exactly with western concepts of continuous sustainability, and in some communities the cash economy has severely eroded traditional authority. However, in most countries, the basic framework of fishing rights has been in place for centuries and is keeping much of the pressure off government resource managers. Although there are sustainability problems with invertebrate fisheries targeting export products, and also with subsistence fisheries in densely populated islands, Pacific island coastal fisheries are generally capable of supporting local nutritional needs, and this is generally because of the tradition of local resource ownership.


The South Pacific islands region is a major study area for those interested in traditional management practices. In many islands, community tenure of nearshore marine areas and fisheries has been unbroken for centuries and forms varied examples of how marine resource ownership works in different situations. In other places, traditional management systems have been eroded by the States assuming rights over resource allocation. Ironically, the Kingdom of Tonga, which is the only major Pacific island group never subject to a western colonial administration, is one of the places where traditional management systems have broken down the furthest.

Currently, there is a general revival in the authority of traditional marine tenure and resource-allocation systems in the South Pacific islands region. Unfortunately, most of the intimate knowledge that Pacific islands fishing clans had developed about the behaviour and seasonality of reef fishes and invertebrates is unwritten, and much has been lost over the course of the 20th century. In addition, the pace of social change is currently so rapid that much of the justification for traditional management - the preservation of fishable resources for the next generation - is undermined by the expectation that most of the next generation will be urban wage-earners. On the other hand, the need to export marine resources to generate the cash to pay the school fees, for example, is immediate.

If effective traditional management practices are to be maintained or revived, then Pacific island governments and institutions are faced with the tasks both of supplementing the traditional knowledge lost and compensating for the erosion of traditional motivation for conservative resource management.